In a recent conversation with a friend in the neighboring movement, I said, “You can’t convince large churches to shift to a neighboring model because they don’t think anything is wrong.” Many large churches are growing in attendance and/or budgets. It might be gradual, but they still see steady numbers, budgets, or even a slight growth curve. All of the research and data, though, point to a declining trend in church attendance and engagement. If we were honest, we’d admit what we know. Little churches are dying as larger churches unintentionally cannibalize them.

Even growing churches admit attendance frequency is on a gradual decline with some measurements as low as 1.8 times per month or less. So what’s the problem? There have been a lot of articles written about nominal believers, the rise of a performance/excellence model, our tech-saturated culture, watered-down teaching, or churches disconnected from social issues like poverty or sex trafficking. Here are three things to consider from simple observations in the neighborhood.

  1. My Neighbors Don’t Prioritize Church

The honest truth is the topic of church just doesn’t come up. This is so true today – even in the Bible belt. You can have fifty conversations with your neighbor, and the only time a neighbor asks about church is if they already attend somewhere or they find out I work at one. It’s such a low priority in the lives of most people that it never even registers in the conversation. Neighbors aren’t hostile. Church is just not important to them.

  1. My Neighbors Don’t Trust Church

When it does enter the conversation, there is almost always a negative reference. It’s gossip about a recent scandal or the failure of a big-name pastor. It’s an offhanded negative remark about the new large building being built by a local congregation. It’s a perceived attack by the church on the accepted culture of our day. Or it’s the honest inquiry regarding the church’s absence from challenging social issues. Neighbors don’t connect with a church because they don’t trust the church.

  1. My Neighbors Don’t Think About Church

Here’s the most challenging truth. The majority of my neighbors never even think about church. It just doesn’t cross their minds. They never wake up on Sunday and wonder whether or not they will attend. They never think about the new series or the shiny building or the cool programming we offer. They never think about worship styles or women’s ministry or youth retreats. They simply never think about church as a part of their lives.
So we spend hours and hours of time and millions and millions of dollars doing everything we can to improve our church buildings and programming. We paint and polish and practice and promote. We do everything we can to make it more desirable, more attractive, more authentic, and more relevant. The reality is we’re doing almost all of this for the group already showing up only 1.8 times a month – yet the numbers continue to decline.

It’s time for an honest dialogue around the conference rooms, classrooms, and boardrooms of churches all over the country. It’s not a matter of trying to be more relevant or even trying to “grow our numbers.” There is a lost and hurting world outside our walls, and they simply are not coming to our doors anymore. We have to rethink the entire model in order to actually go to the world. It’s time for an old idea to become the new way we live out being the church.

Neighborhood Observations on Church Attendance